Obituary: Shelby Jacobs, hidden space program figure with indomitable spirit, dies at 87
Shelby Jacobs, a black aerospace engineer belatedly recognized by NASA as one of the “unsung heroes” of the US space program, died Monday surrounded by loved ones at his Oceanside home. He was 87 years old.
For 40 years, Jacobs worked his way up to the executive ranks of the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. He was also responsible for one of the most iconic video images of NASA’s race to put a man on the moon in the 1960s. It is the often-seen slow-motion color sequence of a shaped section of the ring of the Saturn V rocket separating from the unmanned Apollo 6 spacecraft and slowly spinning towards Earth, 200,000 feet below.
But Jacobs said the exhilaration he felt seeing the success of the camera system he built to capture those images on the morning of April 8, 1968 was short-lived. That same evening, his longtime hero Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. After MLK called for election campaigns in 1965, Jacobs took time off work to help register voters in Southern states.
“I was devastated when Dr King was killed. He was a person who was so focused on doing the right thing,” Jacobs said in a 2021 interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune.. “Like him, I believe that finesse is always better than brute force. I avoided being an angry nigger. I made a choice to have a temperament suited to work so that I could embrace the right people who could help me succeed.
Jacobs faced near-constant discrimination from his white colleagues and was never paid as well as other engineers doing the same job. But his intelligence, positive attitude and perseverance gradually paid off. It wasn’t until 2008, on the 50th anniversary of NASA’s founding, that the space agency recognized Jacobs as one of the space program’s 21 “unsung heroes.”
One of his proudest moments came in January 2019, when an exhibit about his groundbreaking career, titled “Achieving the Impossible,” was dedicated at the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey. It was particularly poignant, Jacobs said, because in all the years he worked for Rockwell in Downey, he was never able to buy a house in the town due to discriminatory lending practices.
“It’s the story of my life,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune on the eve of the exhibit’s 2019 opening. that hadn’t been done before. I never claimed to limit myself to my own limits.
In a 2008 article written for NASA by Christian Gelzer, Jacobs was recognized by the space agency as a quietly persistent innovator who helped make history.
“Shelby Jacobs, like so many black people in this era, encountered social barriers. Although at first the battle seemed quite difficult, with uneven playing fields, Jacobs persevered and continued to help NASA write space history,” Gelzer wrote.
A life without limits
Jacobs was born in Dallas, Texas on April 27, 1935, to parents who were menial workers, despite his mother’s college degree. When he was 8 years old, his family got into the back seat of a Greyhound bus heading to California in search of a better life.
They settled in Val Verde, a small all-black community near Newhall. During its heyday in the 1930s, Val Verde was called the “Black Palm Springs” because it was one of the few places in Los Angeles County where black families could swim daily. At most of LA’s segregated public pools, black people could only visit one day a week.
“People talk about Jim Crow laws only in the South, but racism was just as strong here. It just wasn’t as egregious,” Jacobs said last year. “The difference was in the South they had signs telling black people where they could go and in California it was just understood.”
To help his family make ends meet, he picked watermelons, cantaloupes and potatoes as a child and served restaurant tables as a teenager. Blacks made up just 1% of his class at William S. Hart High School in Newhall, but he stood out in many other ways. Jacobs was a three-sport varsity athlete and senior class president. Lake Elsinore resident Leah Mativa, whose late grandmother Netra Bruton attended high school with Jacobs, said he impressed everyone he met.
“She always talked about his character, the good man he was and how he stayed so positive despite all the hardships he had to face. His success meant so much to her,” Mativa said. .
After high school, Jacobs took an aptitude test that showed great proficiency in math and science, earning him a scholarship to UC Los Angeles. His plan was to study mechanical engineering, but his high school principal tried to convince him otherwise.
“He told me ‘there are no black engineers so you should take a trade’ (course). But that didn’t even cause a ripple with me… What that director taught me wasn’t about racism but about succeeding through thick and thin,” Jacobs said.
A year into his studies at UCLA, Jacobs was forced to drop out and find a job to support his struggling family. He went on to study engineering at a community college, but never graduated. Then in 1956, he got a job with North American Aviation’s Rocketdyne Division, a space contractor at Canoga Park. At the time, only eight of Rocketdyne’s 5,000 engineers were black.
Jacobs attributes his professional breakthrough in the segregated 1950s to blind faith, an innate mastery of numbers and the space race with Russia, which forced government contractors to open up jobs previously reserved for white men to women. skilled and people of color.
These new workers became known as the “hidden figures” of the space program, who Jacobs said were frequently discriminated against, perpetually underpaid, and mostly underutilized. But many have made significant contributions to the space program, including Jacobs who worked on the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs and spent the last 15 years of his career as a senior Rockwell executive at Downey.
Jacobs described his life at Rockwell as rewarding, but difficult. He carefully avoided provoking his white colleagues and faced resentment from his black colleagues, who called him “Uncle Tom” for not fighting back.
“If I demanded equality, it would have stunted my growth. I have spent my whole life on this tightrope,” he said. “I was a dynamic guy and a team player. I felt compelled to participate in activism but I couldn’t let it dominate my life. I felt pressure from black people and threatened white people. I called my career a solo trip.
His daughter Shelley Modaff said that when she was a child, her father never talked about her accomplishments. But once he retired and opened up about his life, he was proud to share his accomplishments with friends, neighbors and reporters.
“Growing up I knew he was building space shuttles, but that was about it. He was shy about telling people because he didn’t think people would believe him because the Blacks didn’t do that,” Modaff said.
Jacobs ended his career at Rockwell working on the Space Shuttle program, where he was project manager for external tank disconnect systems. He retired in 1996 and moved with his then wife, Diane, and their daughter, Shelley, to Oceanside. In 2011 Diane died of cancer. In 2014 he married Elizabeth Portillo, who was also newly widowed. On Wednesday, Portillo-Jacobs said she and her husband shared a huge zest for life. Although they were very ill at the time, they took a hot air balloon ride together over Del Mar on her 87th birthday in April. He is survived by his wife and daughter Shelley Modaff and granddaughter Shelby Beverly Jacobs of Jacksonville, Florida.
A Celebration of Life Service for Jacobs will be held at 2 p.m. Sept. 17 at Rise Church, 1943 California St., Oceanside. His ashes will be interred at Eternal Hills Cemetery in Oceanside. In lieu of flowers, the family suggested donations in Jacobs’ name to the National Society of Black Engineers so young students could follow in his footsteps.